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The Bologna Division: 19 November – 10 December, 1941

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Pavia division inspecting a British A9 Cruiser tank pressed into Italian service.

From 26-27 November, in a determined attack, the 70th Division killed or winkled out the defenders of several Italian concrete pill boxes before reaching El Duda. On 27 November, the 6th New Zealand Brigade fought a fierce battle with a battalion of the 9th Bersaglieri Regiment, who having dug in themselves in among the Prophet’s Tomb, used their machine guns very effectively. Despite fierce opposition, the New Zealand brigade managed to link up with the 32nd Tank Brigade at El Duda. The 6th and 32nd brigades secured and maintained a small bridgehead on the Tobruk front but this was to last for five days. By 28 November, the Bologna had regrouped largely in the Bu Amud and Belhamed areas and the division was now stretched out along 8 miles from Via Balbia to Bypass Road, fighting in several different places. The Reuters correspondent with the Tobruk garrison wrote on the 28th that “The division holding the perimeter continues to fight with utmost bravery and determination. They are stubbornly holding small isolated defence pits, surrounded with barbed wire. ” (The Indian Express, 2 December 1941) Nevertheless, it is claimed in the Allied press that the 25th Bologna Division had been effectively destroyed as a fighting unit with a Cairo spokesman reporting: “We’re forging ahead south-east of Tobruk and have eliminated practically all the Bologna division covering the eastern end of the Tobruk perimeter.” (LINK WITH TOBRUK STRENGTHENED. The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 November 1941)

On 29 November, in an official communique, the Italian High Command denied this, saying that the latest British attempts to break through the Italian siege lines had been defeated by men of the 25th Bologna. (ROME SAYS BRITISH BRIGADE DESTROYED, Toledo Blade, 29 November 1941) At this stage of the fighting the Bologna Division had taken such losses in its attempt to contain the Tobruk garrison that a lesser commander might have called it quits.

That day, 29 November, the 132nd Ariete Division (and accompanying 3rd and 5th Bersaglieri Motorcycle Battalions under Majors Cantella and Gastaldi) overran the 21st New Zealand Battalion along with the New Zealand field hospital which included the prisoner of war cage. (Kay, p.37) The Italians were reported to have captured some 200 hospital guards, along with 1,000 wounded and 700 medical staff. They also freed some 200 Germans being held captive in the enclosure on the grounds of the hospital. (Greene & Massignani, pp. 121-122) The 21st New Zealand Battalion suffered some 450 killed, wounded and captured in what turned out to be a very bleak day for the 5th New Zealand Division.

Lieutenant-Colonel Howard Kippenberger, wounded and a prisoner in the hospital later wrote:

About 5.30 p.m. damned Italian Motorized Division (Ariete) turned up. They passed with five tanks leading, twenty following, and a huge column of transport and guns, and rolled straight over our infantry on Point 175.”

The New Zealand Official History mentions the capture of 1,800 patients and medical staff members, but maintains they were captured by the Germans:

The cooks were preparing the evening meal in the grouped MDSs on 28 November [sic] when over the eastern ridge of the wadi appeared German tracked troop-carrying vehicles, from which sprang men in slate-grey uniforms and knee boots, armed with Tommy guns, rifles, and machine guns. ‘They’re Jerries!’ echoed many as the German infantrymen ran down into the wadi and, as if to show that they did not intend to be trifled with, fired a few bullets into the sand.”

The New Zealand Official History goes on to comment that on 29 November:

Columns of Italian transport passed through the lines westwards, and during the night the clatter and rumble of mechanised vehicles continued around the southern end of the wadi.”

On 30 November, despite counterattacks on the Tobruk front, the ‘Leopard’ strong point was taken. It was during this fighting that Lieutenant Francesco Coco of the 28 Pavia Regiment, although wounded, led the remnants of his company in an attempt to retake ‘Leopard’. For his brave action the Italian officer was awarded the Gold Medal for Valour posthumously.

Italians passed to counter-attack along the whole line

On 1 December, the 2nd New Zealand Division was forced to give up Sidi Rezegh as the Germans broke through its positions and the Trieste cut the tenuous link established with Tobruk,(Christopher Chant, p.37) while the British 4th Armoured Brigade retreated to the south and regrouped in the Bir Berraneb area. (Brigadier R. M. P. Carter, p.24)

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David Aldea is the co-author of 5th Infantry Brigade in the Falklands (Leo Cooper, 2003) and has written numerous articles, including “Blood and Mud at Goose Green” (Military History Magazine, April 2002). He has also written "The Battle of Mersa Matruh" and "First Battle of Alamein" for Comando Supremo: Italy at War.
David Aldea
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Comments

  1. 3
    Reno Piscano says:

    Great work on both authors, once again too much for the rubbish writen about the latin temperament in time of war. I am half Italian/Portuguese and very proud of that. I am a lot proud of our boys that fought with great heroism in both Russia and North Africa. I am still waiting for my order of SACRIFICE IN THE STEPPES writen by an American Hope Hamilton. Completely sold out! Anyway this work is very important for me because it proves ordinary Italians fought very hard and that the Africa Corps get too much mention at the cost of the Italians. Our boys did at least half the fighting and obtained many military achievements in Egypt and Tunisia.

  2. 2
    paul mancuso says:

    As I have argued elsewhere, Rommel and the German forces recieve all the laurels while the Italians are portrayed as their sidekicks. Shame to see the Germans stealing the trucks of the Italians in order to make a rapid getaway, but they did the same thing during the final battle at Alamein, leaving the Italians behind to cover the backsides. The same thing happened again at Kasserine. I hope to see a book written by this guy.

  3. 1
    Peppe Peluso says:

    Hello David
    Really a wonderful article.
    Ciao. Peppe